BBC Wildlife Magazine

Wildlife champion

In our series about people with a passion for a species, we ask wildlife biologist and presenter Lizzie Daly why she loves the leopard seal.

- Interview by Jo Price

Why Lizzie Daly adores the leopard seal

Why are you championin­g the leopard seal?

They have a reputation as one of Antarctica’s most formidable creatures, but there is still so much we don’t know about these solitary animals. Getting the opportunit­y to spend some time with multiple leopard seals in their natural environmen­t – in February 2020, with G Adventures – was a lifelong dream come true. I saw them hunt, haul out on icebergs, interact with other leopard seals, ambush gentoo penguins… and puncture our Zodiac!

What do we know about leopard seals?

They play an important role in the ecosystem and are opportunis­tic feeders: their diet includes cephalopod­s, penguins, seals and krill. As well as sharp canines and incisors, the species has tricuspid molars that interlock to provide an efficient sieve to filter krill, which makes up the majority of their diet, especially during the winter months. The third largest seal in the world – females are the larger of the two sexes, sometimes growing up to 3m in length – has a large head, which is unusual for pinnipeds, and powerful front f lippers that help to propel it through the water, making it uncharacte­ristically agile compared to other true seals. Despite living in a hostile environmen­t, the species has a long life expectancy because it has only one predator – the orca. If it avoids predation, a leopard seal can live up to 26 years old.

S They are excellent at stalking prey, hiding behind icebergs before they attack. T

Tell us about your first encounter

During our first Zodiac landing, one of the expedition leaders told me to move quickly, as she had spotted a leopard seal and knew how excited I was to see one. We leapt into the inf latable boat and, as we drifted around the corner of an iceberg, a long, slender body with a reptilian head and oar-like f lippers appeared. Though the leopard seal knew we were there, it proceeded to go back to sleep on the ice – that was my favourite moment.

Why is it called a leopard seal?

Despite its scientific name, Hydrurga leptonyx, which translates as ‘slender-clawed water worker’, the leopard seal has earned its common name due to the spotty, mottled appearance of its fur coat. Each leopard seal has its own unique pattern, which helps scientists identify and learn more about certain individual­s. When hunting penguins and fur seal pups, leopard seals are ambush predators. Just like big cats, they are excellent at quietly stalking their prey, hiding behind icebergs and f loating ice before they attack. Once they have successful­ly caught their warm-blooded victims, leopard seals often toy with them and then use their powerful teeth to break them apart. Interestin­gly, during the trip, we saw one leopard seal killing penguins but not eating them, opting to stash them in a quiet harbour instead.

LIZZIE DALY is a wildlife biologist and presenter. She travelled to Antarctica with G Adventures. She talks about leopard seals on her YouTube channel – search for #EarthLIVEL­essons.

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